NEW YORK — The United States is approaching the point in the Middle East crisis where a choice must be made. It simply cannot afford to let its first post-Cold War act of global leadership drift into a stalemate between a war of controversial purpose or the abandonment of goals adamantly reiterated by both President George Bush and the international community.
The U.S. objectives--unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait; restoration of its legitimate government, and unconditional release of all hostages--have been affirmed repeatedly in U.N. resolutions. Yet the Administration has been strangely reluctant to explain in what way these objectives reflect U.S. national interest.
Americans must not be given the impression that they have a duty to go to war against every evil leader in the world and against every transgression of the international order. The American people need to understand why this specific aggression by this particular leader, if unchecked, will threaten their own security and pose ever more difficult choices down the road.
The reluctance to define the U.S. national interest has been matched by vagueness on what means are required to reach the objectives. According to official pronouncements, the U.N. goals are to be achieved by sanctions leading to negotiations, if possible, but, as a last recourse, by military means. These approaches have been presented as if they were successive phases of the same policy. In fact, they will prove mutually exclusive--because by the time it is evident that sanctions alone cannot succeed, a credible military option will probably no longer exist.
To achieve the proclaimed objectives by sanctions, at least six hurdles must be overcome: The sanctions must bite; they must be maintained throughout any negotiations; compromise proposals cannot be considered; once the U.N. terms are achieved, arms-control objectives must be addressed; the military option must remain intact psychologically, technically and diplomatically during negotiations, and there must be no other upheavals to deflect the United States or to rend allied cohesion.
To state these hurdles is to set forth the practical impossibility of clearing them. Upheavals in the Middle East, for one thing, are a way of life. In one recent week, Egypt's second highest-ranking official was assassinated, Syria battled Christian forces in Beirut, and 21 Palestinians died in Jerusalem.
If the sanctions do bite in time to be politically relevant, Iraq is more likely to offer to negotiate. In that case, pressures to ease the sanctions will be difficult to resist. Which democracy will want to be responsible for starvation in Iraq and Kuwait once negotiations are under way?
The fundamental dilemma is that the U.N. terms leave no real room for negotiation--except perhaps the staging of the Iraqi withdrawal. Thus, all so-called diplomatic solutions effectively dilute the U.N. objectives, while maintaining Iraq's war-making potential.
For example, even if Saddam Hussein accepts the principle of withdrawal from Kuwait, he has already hinted--and Soviet presidential aide Yevgeny M. Primakov has confirmed--that he would define Kuwait as excluding a strip of land containing a major oil field as well as two islands controlling access to the Shatt el-Arab. Would the United States or the United Nations be prepared to go to war over such a distinction, especially in light of the hints we seem to have given to Hussein before his invasion that we had no strong views about his border dispute with Kuwait?
Hussein's Arab neighbors will surely note that none of the publicly discussed proposals would reduce Iraq's military pre-eminence or restore Kuwait completely. If they conclude that, they will be condemned to live with a dominant Iraq, these countries will begin their own negotiations. Recent remarks by the Saudi defense minister suggest that the haggling has already begun. But will the psychological basis for a military option still exist after months of such inconclusive maneuvering? And without a realistic military threat, how can the U.S./U.N. objectives be achieved?
Many who had urged the sanctions route seem to have accepted that their strategy cannot reach the stated goals. But rather than re-examine the strategy, they are watering down their objectives. President Francois Mitterrand, for example, has suggested that as soon as Iraq accepts the principle of withdrawal--in other words, before it actually withdraws--its grievances against Kuwait could be negotiated.
The common feature of the schemes is that they undermine the military option by consuming time, exact no penalty for aggression, looting a country or taking hostages and leave as the only disputed issue the extent of the aggressor's gains.